While walking my dog on a recent Sunday afternoon, I spotted my neighbor knitting on her front porch. I waved and approached, stopping just short of her shade garden. We chatted for a long time — from a safe distance — about working from home, our dogs, baking, knitting and how our families are doing, not just small talk these days.
The porch has become the buffer in my neighborhood to negotiate new social-distancing rituals, an old-fashioned way to socialize that has been rekindled by the coronavirus.
In these strange times, I have engaged more regularly with our neighbors and passersby than I have in years, often from the safe vantage point of a corner rocking chair on my own front porch. Our family has met new puppies and babies, chatted with good friends and even learned the names of neighbors we knew only by sight. Strangers have stopped to admire our magnolias.
We deemed a front porch a prerequisite when shopping for houses in upstate New York more than 20 years ago. We landed in Delmar, in the middle of a block filled with old homes with inviting porches. Ours has held parties, happy hours, meals and solitary moments over the years. But I never thought it would take on the roles of both a barrier and a connection during a pandemic.
The porch, an architectural element that fell victim to air-conditioning in the mid-20th century, used to be the place where people gathered and cooled off. Old flyers for houses like mine advertised the porch as “a summer parlor” and “a pleasant shelter.”
Now we’re becoming champion porch sitters, after being cooped up for two dreary months of working and binge-watching, in the company of only our immediate family. Warm weather has sprung us loose, but only so far.
Beaches and parks don’t beckon when you have the luxury — and we are fortunate — of a porch for socialization and relaxing. My oldest daughter, Zoe, up from Brooklyn since March, has had many of her meals on the porch, and has found it a good place to read, write and draw. She is an artist and a gallery partnerships manager at the online art-collection platform Artsy, and she left the city to shelter in place and work from here, her childhood home.
While many of us have decks as well, the privacy of the back of the house is not what I crave right now. Even just seeing other people from afar has given us a boost. We want to see our friends and neighbors. We miss them.
And this isn’t limited to my block. Across the country, there are accounts of people using porches to engage from a distance for happy hours and concerts, to help combat social isolation.
Another couple at the end of the street has been sitting on the porch of their bungalow while their teens and friends space themselves 6 feet apart on the front lawn.
Our porch runs the width of our house, about 25 feet. We have found there’s ample space for social distancing, so we designated a chair to be sanitized before and after each guest. My husband and I realized this while a repairman finalized the sale of a boiler from 20 feet away. The next guest, Christine, a friend, brought over an extra pulse oximeter (I have asthma) and sad news about a 95-year-old World War II veteran in town who was dying. We toasted him with glasses of wine.
I didn’t know how starved I had become for connection until I took my spot on the porch and enthusiastic waves from passersby — and from me in return — ensued. I’ve had limited outings since March, my only excursions being hikes, neighborhood walks and doctors’ appointments — mostly solo.
The first time we recognized the porch as a social vehicle to get through this time came in mid-March, after my 16-year-old daughter, Nia, returned from a trip to Spain and had to be quarantined for 14 days. Nia sat inside while her friend Lily sat on the porch, a closed window between them, and they spoke on their phones.
From the porch, I have watched a convoy of cars and minivans cruise along the street, honking at a retiring elementary schoolteacher who came down off her porch to tell her students how much she loved them.
I congratulated my neighbor Ed on turning 79 earlier this spring. His family held a party in his honor on his front lawn, while he sat on the porch with his wife, Shirley.
There is always more work to be done, because upstate winters aren’t kind to wooden porches, and they need constant upkeep. We replaced ours in 2004, finding a white tulip blooming underneath, transplanted by a squirrel, no doubt.
So during this long summer, I’ll be burning off my nervous energy with sandpaper and paint brushes, pausing for random and treasured conversations with my neighbors.